Canadian skier Brian McKeever to make history at Olympics and Paralympics

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CANMORE, Alta. - Brian McKeever will make history at the 2010 Olympic Games by demonstrating the gap between Paralympians and Olympians isn't that big.
The 30-year-old from Canmore, Alta., will be the first winter-sport athlete to compete in both Games. McKeever, who has less than 10 per cent vision because of Stargardt's disease, was named to Canada's Olympic cross-country team Friday along with 10 other athletes.
After the Olympics conclude Feb. 28 in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., he'll race in the Paralympics which will be held in the same communities March 12-21.
While five other athletes have competed in both Paralympics and Olympics, they have all been summer-sport athletes. South African swimmer Natalie du Toit was one of the main storylines of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, where she raced in the 10-kilometre open-water swim as an amputee.
McKeever will attract the same international attention when he races in the Callaghan Valley near Whistler. The flashbulbs and cameras were trained on him Friday instead of Olympic medallists Chandra Crawford and Sara Renner at the Canmore Nordic Centre.
McKeever was ready with his message.
"It shows if you dream big dreams, you can get there no matter what," McKeever said. "It's a message of hope for the Paralympics. In the past, the Paralympics has been seen as a sideshow, not by the athletes but just in terms of the attention that it gets.
"Hopefully this shows that Paralympic athletes are capable of great things and they're training to the same levels and the same kind of hours and effort their able-bodied counterparts are doing."
Also named to the team Friday were Crawford and Renner of Canmore, Dasha Gaiazova, of Banff, Alta., Perianne Jones, of Almonte, Ont., Edmonton's Madeleine Williams, Ivan Babikov and Stefan Kuhn of Canmore, Devon Kershaw of Sudbury, Ont., Alex Harvey of St-Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que., and George Grey of Rossland, B.C.
The cross-country team expects to win at least one medal.
More Canadian skiers could be added to the team after Jan. 28 when the international governing body of the sport, which is FIS, finalizes the number of cross-country skiers each country can bring to the Olympics.
McKeever, who was born in Calgary, but makes his home in Canmore, has won seven Paralympic medals, including four gold, with his brother Robin as his guide.
Robin competed in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in cross-country skiing. Less than a month after his return, he discovered his brother was succumbing to the same condition of inherited macular degeneration that had claimed their father's sight.
"The first thing that came into my head at that time was 'Oh man, he doesn't ever get to see what this is all about' because I had just come back (from the Olympics)," Robin said. "It was the neatest experience of my life at that time."
Brian set his sights on racing in the Olympics in 2005, but was unable to qualify for the Games the following year. He competed at the 2007 world championship with able-bodied athletes and finished 24th in the 15k.
"When I said I wanted to go to the Olympics out loud it was a bit of a shock to me," he recalled. "But it's out there and it's something tangible. If you dare to dream and make that a goal, that's when you start to focus on the process."
Brian won at 50-kilometre Nor-Am race last month on his home track in Canmore, which was enough to gain consideration for the Olympic team.
"At this stage of the game, he would have to be most proud of his performance in the 50k trials race because it's a one-day effort and a one-day event," Robin said.
Brian has peripheral vision, but none in the centre. He says "it's like seeing the donut, but not the Timbit." When he competes in able-bodied events, he finds another skier of the same ability to follow as a guide.
His lack of vision poses challenges. White-out conditions or flat light make downhills treacherous. Brian missed a corner at the Canadian championships last March and broke his shoulder.
"You won't find an athlete at the Games who hasn't had to overcome something big to get there," he said. "I see myself as no different."
The five summer Paralympians who have also competed in the Olympics are du Toit, American runner Marla Runyan (visually impaired), Polish table tennis player Natalia Partyka (born without right hand and forearm), Italian archer Paola Fantato (polio) and New Zealand's Neroli Susan Fairhall (paraplegic), who was also an archer.
Runyan, who also has Stargardt's disease, raced the 1,500 metres at the 2000 Olympics and finished eighth. McKeever will likely race the 50k and possibly the 30k. He isn't targetting a specific result.
"I'm going to try and be in the best shape of my life and we'll see what that brings," he said. "Hopefully by the end of the Olympic Games I can say I've laid down races I can be very proud of."
Canadian Olympic Committee member Gene Edworthy, who is an optometrist in Calgary, says Stargardt's disease tends to surface in adolescent or late teenage years. Brian will inspire those who have been diagnosed with the condition, he added.
"I think it's an amazing accomplishment," Edworthy said. "The message is that we can still be who we want to be. It's a limitation, but a limitation that can be overcome.
"To do something like cross-country ski racing at the Olympic level, if someone can do that, they can fulfil many other dreams in life."
The 50k race is Feb. 28, which is the final day of Olympic competition. Brian believes he'll recover in time for the Paralympics, where he and Robin are expected to win multiple medals.
"There's two weeks in between, so it will give me time to recharge," he said. "Rob and I have a good plan for how we'll handle that time in between and just get back to some basic training and feeling good. The confidence I have the experience on the course will carry over to the Paralympics as well."

Organizations: Canmore Nordic Centre, Olympic Games I, Olympic Committee

Geographic location: CANMORE, Whistler, Canada Vancouver Beijing Callaghan Valley Calgary Banff Almonte Edmonton Sudbury St-Ferreol-les-Neiges Rossland Nagano Japan New Zealand

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